The tidal energy industry has been picking up steam over the past 20 or years or so, offering the promise of zero emission electricity from from the natural, predictable, relentless, and infinite motion of the tides. Replacing diesel generators is one of the goals, and a confluence with river-based energy has also emerged. With the pace of activity ramping up significantly this year, industry insiders are buzzing over the next big steps.
The Long Road To Tidal Energy
CleanTechnica has spilled plenty of ink on tidal energy over the years. We launched our website back in 2008, and the power of tides was among the first topics to catch our eye. The International Renewable Energy Agency was watching, too. In 2012 IRENA cited a worldwide estimate of 1 terawatt (1,000 gigawatts) of technically recoverable, zero emission electricity from tidal energy harvesting devices — and that’s just for those located near coastlines.
To be clear, replacing diesel fuel is just part of the tidal energy picture. The industry has the potential to make a significant contribution to global economic decarbonization overall.
The early days seemed promising enough. The idea of harnessing tidal energy first cropped up in the 1920s and scale-up was not far behind. In 1966, the gigantic 240-megawatt La Rance tidal power station in France went into operation, leveraging the infrastructure of an existing dam. Still, it was another 50 years before a bigger project was up and running, the 254-megawatt Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in Korea (check out our tidal archive here).
The Rise Of Hydrokinetic Turbines
That’s where things stood in 2012, when IRENA added up a total of just 514 megawatts’ worth of capacity in tidal barrage systems, dominated by those two projects. Barrage systems are dams or dam-like facilities that harvest energy from the range of water levels between high and low tides.
Barrage infrastructure projects have long, costly construction timelines, and they can wreak havoc on fragile coastlines and estuaries. New barrage systems face an uncertain future in nations where environmental regulations present formidable obstacles, though flood control projects could provide opportunities for new tidal energy deployment.
A more contemporary approach is represented by the hydrokinetic turbines that collect energy from the flow of tidal or ocean currents, similar to the way in which wind turbines spin as the wind blows. They can be tethered to the water bed or attached to floating stations, requiring minimal infrastructure.
Hydrokinetic devices do not depend on the built-up water pressure provided by hydropower dams. Instead, they leverage the ambient flow of water. In addition to ocean tides or currents, hydrokinetic energy harvesters can be deployed in rivers or at canals, irrigation systems, water treatment systems, existing dams, and other human-made infrastructure where water flows (here’s our complete hydrokinetic archive).
Tidal Power Grows Up
In a hint of things to come, in 2012, IRENA described how leading global engineering firms were beginning to partner with tidal energy startups to tackle saltwater corrosion, cost, supply chain issues, visibility, and other challenges facing tidal power turbine design, all with the aim of shepherding a new industry into life.
CleanTechnica is reporting from the 2023 Ocean Energy Europe Conference in The Hague this week, where we have been hearing much (much) about partnerships with industry leaders, as well as supply chain ramp-ups, manufacturing and workforce resources, infrastructure sharing with offshore wind turbines and other offshore systems, new public funding opportunities, increased visibility in the investor community, new public policy and market supports, the growth of data banks and other shared knowledge systems, and new information sharing initiatives among regulatory bodies that help tidal energy developers avoid some of the costs and time associated with environmental and technical reviews.
Tidal Energy In The USA
Many of the firms represented at the Ocean Energy Europe event are new to the CleanTechnica radar, and we’ll be tracking them over the coming weeks and months to keep you up with the latest news. In the meantime, let’s take a look at one familiar name from the event, ORPC (Ocean Renewable Power Corporation). The company’s trajectory illustrates how many of the themes expressed during the conference have come together over the last 20 years.
ORPC launched as a startup in Maine in 2004, long before the tidal energy industry assembled the support of supply chain stakeholders, trade shows, funding opportunities, legislative platforms, and other means of attracting investor support.
The company tested its first tidal energy turbine in the swirling waters of Cobscook Bay in Maine in 2010, at the town of Eastport. It was the first in a four-year series of tests that ended in 2014.
With a maximum capacity of just 150 kilowatts, the project was small in scale. However, as the first ever grid-connected commercial tidal project in North America, it provided an early roadmap for future cost-cutting and durability improvements.
Off To The Rivers, And Back To The Tides
The Maine project also caught the eye of the Energy Department, which was looking for opportunities to replace expensive diesel fuel for remote riverside communities in the Alaskan interior. ORPC fit the bill, with its tidal technology transferred to a river-friendly system called RivGen. A 35-kilowatt, grid-enabled demonstration system was deployed in the village of Igiugig in 2015, filling almost half of the community’s electricity demand.
In 2021 the Rivgen module was hauled ashore for maintenance. As of last year, the plan is to reinstall it along with a second-generation version, RivGen 2.0, for additional power.
Meanwhile, ORPC is circling back around to Eastport, where it has laid plans for a series of two 12-month tests of its new TidGen tidal power system. Last spring, the Maine Monitor recapped the state of affairs, noting that the end goal is a scaled-up, microgrid-connected system in the range of 1-2 megawatts, working in concert with solar energy.
Presenting a recap of ORPC’s activities in 2023 at the Ocean Energy Europe event, CEO Stuart Davies noted that the company has formed a partnership with the leading global electrical systems firm Schneider, with the aim of deploying hydrokinetic turbines in turnkey, out-of-the-box microgrid systems, deliverable to communities around the world.
“Many devices are connected to the grid,” Davies said. “But, we will be the grid.”
In another sign of things to come, on October 24 ORPC announced that it has contracted to provide two RivGen modules to Shell, to serve as a demonstration project for harvesting energy from the ambient flow of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Following a site analysis this, year, deployment is expected in 2024.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
ORPC was not the only company taking note of a fresh burst of activity in 2023 with the promise of more to come.
The overall topics of discussion at the Ocean Energy Europe conference revolved around the tidal energy industry’s ability to fill gaps in the offshore energy area, scale up commercial manufacturing, share resources with offshore wind developers, and diversify the economies of island and remote communities that are at risk of losing population.
Photo: TidGen tidal power renewable energy system courtesy of ORPC.
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